Immaculate Conception senior running back YJ Thomas powers his way for a first down during the Lions’s game against the MKA Cougars. It was the first meeting between the schools since 2011.
PHOTO BY ANDREW GARDA/STAFF

by Andrew Garda

garda@montclairlocal.news

This could be the beginning of a beautiful rivalry.

Saturday afternoon, Montclair saw what both Montclair Kimberley Academy and Immaculate Conception coaching staffs hope will become a long-standing tradition as the two football teams met at Van Brunt Field for a highly competitive, entertaining game, which the Cougars won, 32-28.

It was the first time the two teams took the field against each other since 2011, according to MKA coach Anthony Rea.

“What’s great is they’re able to come up to us all the time,” Rea said of the connection to Immaculate. “They run up sometimes and we’ll do some 7 on 7 and we’ll workout in the offseason.”

Lions coach Ryan Horan says IC is looking forward to next year as well, and expects the two teams to lock horns again early next season. He definitely sees the rivalry as beneficial to both schools.

“I think this little rivalry will be nice for us as well,” Horan said after the game.

Rea said that being in the shadow of Montclair High School’s success can be tough, but things like this game will help get the word out about ‘the other guys.’

“We’re the two private schools in the town, and there’s some good football down here,” Rea insists. “I know sometimes it gets lost, obviously with Montclair [High School]. They’re a great program. But there are two other programs in town that are really fun to watch.”

MKA junior Trey Wilson delivers a stiff arm to Immaculate Conception defender Amilkar Love during the Cougars’ 32-28 win on Saturday, Nov. 11.
PHOTO BY ANDREW GARDA/STAFF

A lot of that fun Saturday came from the ground game, which focused on senior YJ Thomas for the Lions with senior Harrison Walker and junior Trey Wilson for the Cougars. All three running backs showed great determination on their runs, breaking tackles and accelerating into the open field for long gains.

Walker, who was playing in his last game as a Cougar, ran for 95 yards on the ground, but found the end zone on a 40-yard catch and run. As the Lions focused on Walker, though, Wilson was asked to step up and he did. Wilson would score three touchdowns, all in the second half with two critical ones in the fourth quarter.

That doesn’t even count two touchdowns he had called back due to holding calls.

Wilson was a force, showing excellent speed and vision, with the ability to slip tackles both in the backfield and at the second level. If he lacks some of Walker’s patience at the line of scrimmage, that’s something the Couars staff can help him develop, and it has to be an exciting prospect for MKA fans to know he’s back for another year.

On the other side of the field, Thomas continued the strong running effort which has been the hallmark of his career as a Lion. Thomas pounded the middle of the Cougars defensive front, barreling over and often dragging MKA defenders for extra yards as he did, and topping 1,000 yards for the season, along with 10 touchdowns total.

“YJ had a fantastic season, I wish I had given him the ball more,” Horan said. “He broke 1,000 yards which is a huge accomplishment, not just for him but for the team.”

Especially big for a program which, just a few short years ago, looked like it would be dissolved.

“I’m so greatful for our seniors,” an emotional Horan said. “Especially [Thomas] and Nashier Jerome-Bushrod. Nashir is just our heart and soul on the team, leading us on offense and defense. He led us in tackles for the year. So they’re two big losses that we’re having because they’re just great players and great guys.”

Both teams had very small senior classes this year, which made for very inexperienced teams. However both coaches pointed out that in the long-term, that youth can transform into savvy veteran leadership.

“Really, really promising,” Rea says of 2018 “I’m proud of [the team] and there are some guys [here] to definitely build a great foundation.”

IC is in a strikingly similar situation.

‘We’re so young,’ Horan said. “I mean we had five sophomores across the offensive line, sophomores all over the place on defense. We are young,and we are building. If they can buy into it in the offseason, get in the weight room, get bigger, faster, stronger.”

Horan smiled and shook his head.

“We’re excited.”